Focus on the Family

Building a Strong Family

by Dick Wulf

How do you build a strong family? By paying attention not only to individual family members but to the family as a group. This is rarely done in the American home. But your success as a parent may depend upon it.

A cooperative and interdependent family will not usually come into being if a parent centers most of his or her attention on individual kids when part or all of the family is together. A collection of people being herded in the same direction will not prosper and grow into the powerful family it could be.

You may get surprising results if you apply the following professional group work approach to your family life. It often yields parents and children who help one another and look out for one another throughout the rest of life. This kind of family enables individual members to function and grow far stronger than in the usual home setting.

Leading Your Family as a Group

Leading the family as a group is completely different from merely raising kids one-by-one, ignoring the family as a unit.

Think of the coach of a football team. He must focus on how the various members of the team relate to one another, work together, carry out the plays, etc. Whereas the quarterback coach is concerned with very different things: an individual's performance and morale.

Parents must be both kinds of coaches. What usually happens is that they just operate like the quarterback coaches, helping one individual at a time and leaving out teaching their families to work together and help one another.

Think of an orchestra conductor who must be concerned that each musician is playing his or her part and that the whole orchestra is in harmony. The flute instructor, on the other hand, is focused on the individual. Parents must be both the conductor and the instructor — the conductor when the family is together (which happens too rarely) and an instructor with individual children.

Therefore, the successful parent has the family in mind, talks to the family as a whole, analyzes how the family is developing and what it needs to do together to go further, gives the family work to do, and helps with a host of other family-centered concerns.

Suppose a child needs to do better in school. Let's look at three different ways of handling the situation.

In the usual approach, a parent talks to the child who needs to do better. All the other children in the family probably know that their brother or sister is doing poorly, but they are not brought into the process. Often the reason is to prevent embarrassment. But the other kids know — and they might not be acting kind to their sibling behind the parents' backs.

In this approach, almost all communication occurs between the parent(s) and the child, with occasional parental "side comments" to other children. This approach rarely protects the poor student from sibling cruelty. What it does is prevent the other children from offering help and support to their struggling brother or sister. Many other things might be being hindered as well, such as getting to the root of the problem. The other children might know some reasons for their brother's poor academic performance, such as teasing he's getting at school.

A second approach has the parent carrying on a helpful discussion with the child while the other kids are listening. This might seem like an approach that involves the family, but really it does not. This method asks for no true commitment from the other family members to help rather than hinder the troubled brother or sister.

A third approach, the empowering model of family leadership, has many advantages you might not have considered. In this model the parent focuses on the family as the entity he or she is helping. The reason is that the family as a whole can do the best job of helping a member of the family overcome a problem. (I know. We tried this when one of our older daughters was doing poorly in school.)

In the empowerment model, the parent talks to the family as a whole. Everyone agrees together to help the brother or sister who is doing poorly. Then the parent focuses on helping the family do all the things necessary. Children and parents working together can pool their ideas and efforts. The family decides how each family member can help, what actions and attitudes will be truly helpful, what consequences should follow if any family member knowingly does something harmful to the process, which family members should spend extra time with the person, and a host of other things that would not occur in either of the first two approaches.

Besides helping the troubled family member, this approach builds the family up and causes all its members to grow. Everyone makes decisions together, works together to accomplish the family purpose and overcomes barriers that block progress. Both the individuals and the family grow and become stronger.

This empowering model of family leadership expects a lot of a family and is very affirming. It is not the typical "let's see how comfortable we can make the family." Instead, it is more like saying, "Let's show the family members how much the family can accomplish by working together."


Adopting a Significant Family Purpose

How do you build a strong family? By paying attention not only to individual family members but to the family as a group.

by Dick Wulf

If members of the family do not consciously think about the family as a social unit, each person will focus only on his or her individual purposes. When these usually hidden agendas clash, conflict results. The family does not know how to handle it, since the family is not fully functioning as a family without a purpose to which all members are committed.

On the other hand, when a family is led as a family, careful time is taken to help the family adopt a purpose that is critically important to the family members. Expected behavior in light of this family purpose is discussed. I did this in my family when my oldest child was 4 years old, couching our purpose in 4-year-old language. As the kids got older, we went over our family purpose at higher and higher levels of understanding.

Our family's purpose was to "become as a family and as people all that God wants us to be."

Note that a properly stated purpose is a result, not an activity. Therefore, having fun as a family is not a recommended purpose, while being together "to make certain that every member of the family enjoys life" is an adequate purpose. It is measurable.

Without such a purpose to guide behavior, a family can become dysfunctional. Teenagers drop out of such a family since they were never card-carrying, contributing members of a group with an important purpose.

If you want your family to be a close-knit group of highly functional people, adopting a family purpose is critical. In the process of working toward a significant purpose with all its important goals, individuals (both children and parents) stretch themselves and become more capable.

Most likely you will want to propose to your family some purpose that specifically states or strongly implies an intention of helping one another be all that each can be. Two powerful possibilities emerge from such a purpose.

First, from that general purpose, you can help your family create goals for the family as a whole. For example, to develop into a helpful family, the family might decide to work toward the goal of being able to handle conflict calmly. The family could also set related goals for each member of the family.

Second, a family purpose can be used to measure what behavior is appropriate and inappropriate, right or wrong. For example, if one child takes something (steals) from another, it is not dealt with simply as an individual wrong, but also as something that negatively affects the family's purpose. Likewise, when people do not do their chores, they can be confronted with the family purpose and shown how such irresponsibility affects others. The family purpose should make disciplining kids more understandable and loving.

Do Not Do Anything the Family or Its Members Can Do

When you continually do things for people that they can do for themselves, you cripple them. Likewise, when you do things for the family that the family can do, you cripple the family. Doing way too much for the family and its members subtly communicates that the family and its members are not able to do things. (It is no wonder so many people in families do so little.) It also robs individuals and the family of a chance to achieve greater and greater maturity.

Take, for example, the situation where a family member is too talkative and pushy. Most models suggest that the parent pull the child aside and talk to him or her about the unwelcome behavior. This spoils a strengthening opportunity for the family.

The empowering model of family leadership says that the family as a whole should deal with the domineering member, that he or she is the family's problem. So one or both parents should instead help the family deal with the dysfunctional behavior. Family members will not only have to confront the offender but also learn to support and encourage him or her in order to keep the person constructively engaged with the family.

Giving the family the problem is critical to the development of the family and its members in many ways. Most important is the fact that the family can do many jobs a thousand times better than one or two parents. The family as a whole has more resources, more talent, more synergy, more time, more energy.

Therefore, the successful parent is constantly vigilant to assure that he or she does not hold the family and its members back by doing things that the kids or the family as a whole can do. Instead of talking, directing, empathizing, and a host of other things that the family and its members can do better, the wise parent is constantly thinking about what the family needs to do to be a more dynamic family.

A parent should begin by briefly modeling any behavior that no family member can model, and teaching what no family member or members can teach. Then the wise parent gives those tasks to the family for it and its members to do from that time on.

Imagine that two younger children in the family get into a quarrel over toys. Thousands of times the parent has modeled how to handle such a situation lovingly. Eventually, a mother or father should ask an older teenager in the family to help the two younger siblings resolve their disagreement. The parent should supervise directly or indirectly, because the main goal is not to resolve the argument of the two younger children but to teach a vital life skill to the teenage son or daughter.

Another example might be to have a senior in high school pay the family bills and balance the checkbook for six months. This could be done by the parents, as usual, but then a teaching opportunity would disappear. The teen will be paying bills and balancing checkbooks for the rest of his or her life.

Now for an example of giving a problem to the family. Let's say that a teenager is just about to get his driver's license. The family needs to have a car available for that youngster to drive occasionally. The family should deal with this together.

Or let's imagine that the family dog is getting out of the yard. What would be gained for a parent to solve this alone, if there is time for the family to find a solution together? Together the family might find a better or more complete answer. Furthermore, the children would learn how to solve problems and think of alternative solutions.


One Single Dad's Story

When Don lost his wife to cancer, he was left to raise his 8-year-old daughter alone.

by Don Barlow

In January 1987, my wife of 12 years died from pancreatic cancer. This left me with the responsibility of raising my 8-year-old daughter alone. After the shock of my wife's death, I became aware that I knew nothing about raising a daughter by myself. We had raised my wife's two children and my two sons, and they were all living outside of the home.

During the grieving process, I sometimes wondered if the wrong parent had died. Mothers raise daughters. Fathers are supposed to financially support the family. Mothers are the nurturers; it had been that way in my family. Now, I had to learn a new role, one I hadn't anticipated. I never knew what being a parent was about until I had to do it all myself.

I believe my daughter's greatest fear initially was being left alone. She had already lost her mother. Would she lose me as well? Who would take care of her then? On one occasion she announced, "Dad, I know what you can get me for Christmas, and it won't cost a cent. You can find me a new mom." It was too soon for me to consider taking such a step, but her question helped me to understand the depth of her need. She was hurting and she was scared.

After the initial shock, denial and bargaining phases had run their courses, we worked through the lingering anger and depression and started to put our lives back together. When she was in elementary school, I became a "Room Father." (When it was my turn to bring cookies, I could buy the dough in rolls, cut it into individual cookies and bake them.) I helped coach her softball team. I encouraged her involvement in church activities so she would be spiritually grounded. I enrolled her in charm school and we joined ballroom dancing classes together.

For cultural exposure, I involved her in our American Indian heritage. We attended and danced at Indian powwows. I signed her up for summer basketball camps and attended the awards ceremony at the end. I tried to be involved by balancing work and family. I passed up a job at a local university because of the position's frequent out-of-state travel.

So many memories: the first date, graduations, basketball games at the arena, the first formal dance, her first prom dress, learning how to ride a bike, her Indian dancing. These things I will always treasure. The hard times: the day she broke her arm playing basketball. The death of her older sister five years ago.

My daughter is 23 years old now. Like any parent, I didn't know it would turn out OK, until it did. It boiled down to this: Ultimately, the best gift I could give my daughter was my time, my love and my encouragement. Daughters need their fathers no matter what their age, and it's never too late to start.


When Friends Matter Most

Finding the support you need to thrive as a single parent

by Susan Mathis

I just couldn't raise my daughter alone. After my husband abandoned Janelle and me, leaving us with nothing, I knew I needed help. Four friends with very different roles, who each met different needs, surrounded me with support, accountability and encouragement.

My Solomon

"God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore" (1 Kings 4:29). God also gave much wisdom to my friend Wanda.

Wanda came into my life at just the right time. Older, wiser and a widow who knew her share of heartache, Wanda counseled me. With patience, she carried me through my brokenness. With love, she walked with me through my darkest days and rejoiced as I grew and healed.

Sometimes I'd call her in the middle of the night, pouring out my fears and worries. She'd lovingly and faithfully calm me with counsel from God's Word. Other times we'd get together to discuss the practical matters of single parenting, my concerns about the future or fears about my daughter's emotional healing. We'd read books together about single parenting, and I always felt safe to be brutally honest with her about my anger and pain, knowing Wanda would protect my heart and fragile emotions.

She also understood that I needed encouragement, so she'd rejoice with me when I overcame one of the many single-parent obstacles. Wanda was, and still is, the person I can turn to for godly counsel and wise advice.

My Aaron and Hur

"When Moses' hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up — one on one side, one on the other — so that his hands remained steady till sunset" (Exodus 17:12). When I was weary in the battles that swirled around me, Becky and Barb held my hands up — just when I needed it most.

Becky is a longtime friend who had known my former husband well. She'd seen his behavior and knew firsthand what had happened to our family. So Becky had a special role of supporter and sympathizer. She would get boiling mad because she shared my pain. She knew that what I was saying was true; she knew the stories weren't exaggerated or a product of my imagination. It was comforting to have someone who understood. Becky had a unique way of supporting me, sitting me on a rock of reality and standing with me.

Barb is a spiritual encourager and accountability partner. She, too, stood with me and held up my hands, but she did this through prayer, guiding me to His Word for strength and calling me to obedience and accountability. She kept me from losing the spiritual battle and pointed me to the Commander in Chief — Christ.

Together, these two women kept me steady, focused and balanced.

My Timothy

"We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God's fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith" (1 Thessalonians 3:2). When I needed someone to help counsel my daughter, Pam was my Timothy.

Pam is God's gift to my daughter and me. Though several states away, Pam spent hours on the phone with Janelle, strengthening and encouraging her in her faith, as well as supporting her relationship with me. Pam bolstered my mothering with her wise counsel, helping Janelle gain a proper perspective and guiding her through her teen and young adult years.

Without Pam's support for Janelle, the teen years probably would have been more turbulent. Thanks, in part, to Pam, my daughter is a godly, married and successful woman who didn't fall prey to the ominous single-parent statistics.

* * *

Look around you. Who in your life could meet your needs in these vital areas? Who could be a counselor or mentor? Who will keep you accountable to be obedient? Who will let you cry on her shoulder when you just need to let it all out? And who can come alongside you to help with your children? If you can find one same-gender friend in each of these areas, you'll be blessed.


Raising a Gentleman

Tips for single dads raising sons

by Arthur Keeley

James has an infectious smile. At 19 years old, unlike some of his more sullen peers, he is polite and gracious. The women in our church especially enjoy talking to him. Young and old alike feel respected and honored in his company. In a world where it can be tough to get a teenager to look you in the eye, James offers a warm hug and a gentle smile. As a pastor, I find it refreshing when I run into James — and his dad, Rob, a father who has raised James on his own.

The more I interacted with this family, the more impressed I became. I wanted to know more. Specifically, I wanted to know how Rob, without a woman around, taught his son to interact with and honor women. And how did he work through his own struggles with his ex-wife in order to model respect?

With the number of single custodial dads on the rise, fathers need the wisdom Rob and others like him can share. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the number of single fathers has increased well over 25 percent in the last 10 years. There are now more than 2.1 million single fathers, up from 1.7 million in 1995.

I decided to interview Rob and some other single fathers who have taught their sons to be gentlemen.

Here is a sample of best practices used by each of them.

Show faith and forgiveness. All the dads interviewed agreed that their relationship with God was most important. Authentic relationship erased their bitterness and resentment. Rob modeled this type of living faith. There were plenty of reasons for him to be bitter over his divorce, but he chose forgiveness. As James watched his father choose grace over accusing words or behaviors, James then chose the same path.

Lack of forgiveness, on the other hand, can hinder any attempt to train a son to honor women. Sons will notice the dislike simmering below the surface of your heart.

What do the women in your world think? Try to create teachable moments with the women in your son's life. Expose him to the respected opinions of godly women. Given the encouragement, he will discover a wealth of lessons from his grandmothers, cousins, aunts, teachers. Teaching him to learn about and respect godly female role models will spill over into his day-to-day encounters with others.

Think ahead about chivalry. Encourage your son to treat any woman as he would expect his future wife to be treated. That kind of call to honor will spur him to action. Then, rather than leaving a trail of broken hearts behind him, he will have the opportunity to reflect the heart of a true gentleman.

Affirm a gentleman. When you notice your son going out of his way to honor or respect a woman, be sure to let him know how proud you are of his effort.

Who can help? There are times when you won't know how to communicate with your son. You might see a behavior or attitude that is unsettling. Make sure to have a prayer partner and use your Sunday school teacher, singles' pastor and other men who can encourage you. Ask other committed single dads for their help.

The basics always work. Some women today are offended if a man opens a door, but most will appreciate it. The thing to remember is to encourage your son to keep doing what is right. Be sure not to give up, and incorporate respect into other areas. Here are a few ideas that go beyond holding doors:

Finally, for any single dad who wants his son to honor and respect women, model it. Ultimately, you will see the same behavior in your boy — like father, like son.


Next Steps and Related Information

Additional resources for single parents

Popular questions on this topic: